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Cornelius News

Rotary Youth Exchange; Diplomacy one student, one family at a time


Thanagorn Khoonchandee, 17, is attending Hough High School and staying with Ineke and Bob Wilson at their home in Birkdale

By Donald White. Bridging the gaps between cultures can seem a huge undertaking. But for some exchange students and their host families, understanding begins with simple one-on-one interaction.

Rotarian Richard Colven and his wife Mary are passionate about youth exchange programs, and not just because they met as exchange students in Japan 34 years ago. Colven, the owner of Camp Wagging Tails on Bailey Road, said the experience would rate “as one of the most enriching experiences of our young lives.”

Through the worldwide Rotary Youth Exchange, the Colven family hosted an exchange student from Germany last year. This year, Thanagorn Khoonchandee, 17, is attending Hough High School and staying with Ineke and Bob Wilson at their home in Birkdale. Ineke is the former district governor of Rotary.

Rotary’s student exchange programs can also spread a message of tolerance in troubled times, as one exchange student found out earlier this year.

In March, Marcellin Niset watched the aftermath of the coordinated suicide bombings in Brussels in horror. Two of them hit the last place he had seen before he left his native Belgium: Brussels Airport.

Niset was spending a year in Alaska—which he describes as “a wilderness filled with beauty and love”—as part of the Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange program. His dream as part of the program was to serve as a cultural ambassador, “being the custodian of national values and beliefs.”

Often this was easy. Niset says he made countless Belgian waffles for people in his host country. He shared facts about his homeland with his host club and community.

But Rotary’s program gave Niset a chance to do even more than that: “going deeper, and sharing what makes people from my country unique, explaining why we think and behave differently, without judging, is harder. There is not just one way to do things, and one way isn’t better than another, just different.”

The importance of that mission was brought home to Niset in a powerful way on the day of those heartbreaking attacks. How could such horrors be inflicted on his beautiful country by people who didn’t understand cultural differences and didn’t want to take the time and effort to see that diversity is ultimately a strength?

“How in a world interconnected, multicultural, and full of exchange students, can terrorist attacks still happen?” he wondered.

Niset thought back to his first orientation with the other exchange students. His coordinator shared with them the motto of the Rotary Youth Exchange: “Make peace in the world, one student at a time.”

Other attacks around the world broke Niset’s heart. He said he had a friend from France, two from Indonesia, one from Germany. “All of them felt the weight of terrorism,” he said. “It oppresses you, makes you fearful, sad and angry.”

But because of his experiences with the Rotary Youth Exchange, and the friends he made in the program, Niset was more determined than ever not to let those negative emotions — fear, mistrust, hatred — carry the day. Instead, he used his time in the U.S. to share his values, his beliefs and his identity.

Niset says youth exchange programs like Rotary’s can promote peace and respect across nations and cultures.

“This is the power of Rotary Youth Exchange,” he said. “And it can be the pride of Rotary, too.”

Colven says such programs can be a tool of lasting peace.

“You are a lot less likely to go to war with a country where someone you love lives,” he said. “And misconceptions — especially about Americans — rarely survive the year.”